Haaland voices opposition to mining near Okefenokee

Dec. 9—U.S. Department of Interior Debra Haaland has written a letter to Gov. Brian Kemp voicing opposition to a proposed mining project near the Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge.

"A proposed titanium dioxide mine in the Okefenokee ecosystem and adjacent to the refuge is currently being evaluated by the state of Georgia's permitting authorities," she wrote. "I strongly recommend that the state of Georgia not move ahead with approval for this proposed mine in order to ensure that the swamp and refuge are appropriately protected, consistent with all appropriate legal processes."

It's the second time in 25 years that an interior secretary has voiced opposition to proposed mining near the Okefenokee. Then-Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt visited the world-famous swamp a quarter century ago to voice opposition to a proposed mining project by DuPont before the company even applied for a permit.

DuPont ended up abandoning those plans amid public pressure.

Haaland's announcement opposing the mining proposal by Alabama-based Twin Pines Minerals comes after a visit to the Okefenokee last week. She toured the refuge with U.S. Sen. Jon Ossoff, D-Ga., who has openly opposed the mining near the swamp.

"The department has a profound interest in protecting the health and integrity of the swamp ecosystem," Haaland wrote. "Home to the refuge, it is a unique wetland ecosystem unlike any other found in North America and is one of the world's most hydrologically intact freshwater ecosystems."

At 402,000 acres, the Okefenokee is the largest national wildlife refuge east of the Mississippi River. It is 16th most visited in the nation, with more than 400,000 visitors. That doesn't count the visitors to Stephen Foster State Park or Okefenokee Swamp Park.

The refuge is currently under consideration for nomination as a UNESCO World Heritage site due to its unique and intact hydrology and ecology.

Besides the risks mining could have on the Okefenokee's ecosystem, the department of interior is also "deeply concerned" about potential impacts to cultural values.

"The swamp is also part of the Muscogee (Creek) Nation ancestral homeland and is recognized as a significant and important Traditional Cultural Property," Haaland wrote. "Current tribal members recognize that the Trail Ridge landscape feature, which is included within the proposed mining boundary, was likely used as a travel corridor by their ancestors."

Past settlements and burial mounds have been documented on Trail Ridge and more are suspected to exist within the project boundary, she said.

"Mining on the Trail Ridge feature could irrevocably impact these culturally important resources," she said.

The proposed mining project poses "an unacceptable risk" to the long-term hydrology and future of the swamp ecosystem, and the cultural values, she said.

"The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service has communicated these concerns before and intends to submit further information outlining these serious consequences if the state moves forward with the permitting process," Haaland said. "We are not alone in this assessment, as some of the preeminent experts on this ecosystem and hydrology at the University of Georgia have also raised the alarm about the threat that this type of mining activity in this area poses to the swamp."

Haaland concluded her letter by saying conserving natural and cultural resources for the American people is a "profound obligation" of the department.

"The department will exercise its own authorities to protect the swamp ecosystem and will continue to urge our state and federal partners to take steps under their own authorities to do the same," Haaland said.

Jamie Rappaport Clark, president and CEO of Defenders of Wildlife, praised Haaland's visit to the wildlife refuge and her stance opposing the proposal to mine near the swamp. He urged Kemp to reject all permits, saying mining has "absolutely no place next door to this extraordinary American treasure."

"Secretary Haaland has embraced the best available science and acknowledged the extensive research and tireless advocacy of dozens of scientists, elected officials, and agency leaders who are unequivocal about the significant threat facing the Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge," Clark said. "Digging near Okefenokee or any wetland is reckless and wrong-headed, period. Allowing any mining in the vicinity of Okefenokee could lead to a catastrophic draining of the swamp which would irreparably transform it from the vibrant and biodiverse wilderness we know today."

Atlanta lawyer Josh Marks, who helped fight against the DuPont mining initiative a quarter century ago, expressed his support for Haaland's position.

"It is great to see Secretary Haaland speaking out for the Okefenokee and against Twin Pines Minerals' dangerous project," Marks said. "This is now the second interior secretary I've met who has shown extraordinary leadership on the swamp's behalf. Secretary (Bruce) Babbitt did the same thing 25 years ago in opposing DuPont's Okefenokee proposal. And hopefully, Gov. Kemp will listen to her just as Gov. Zell Miller listened to Secretary Babbitt and say no to Twin Pines Minerals."